Will Gwynne - Courtesy Lucie McMahon
Will Gwynne. Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon
Stories & Ideas

Wed 03 Apr 2024

Will Gwynne wants community and connection

Australia Factual media Film Representation
Digby Houghton
Digby Houghton

Film critic, filmmaker & screenwriter

Lucie McMahon's documentary on public housing in Melbourne, Things Will Be Different, is a portrait of resilience in the face of upheaval.

At the midpoint of Lucie McMahon’s documentary Things Will Be Different, we witness Will Gwynne being displaced. He gazes pensively out at the road from behind the wheel of his car, before performing a head check and speeding off. We watch his unmoving face through the lens of the shaky cam. He puffs on a cigarette as the Little Murders song bearing the same title as the film plays in the background. “Things will be different/ it’s bound to change/ things will be different/ ain’t my love/ ain’t it strange!” belts Rob Griffith’s vocals which carry the promise of renewal as we watch the storefronts on Brunswick Street fly by. The lyrics serve as a stark reminder of Will’s forced relocation from his home in the Walker Street public housing estate in Westgarth, Northcote. Despite the odds, Will carries a quiet strength, as though he is unbreakable.

Will has arrived at this point in his life due to the privatisation of public housing stock implemented by successive state governments since the 1990s. The shift is part of the broader systemic underfunding of public housing in Australia.

In Things Will Be Different, we follow single mother Najat and her four children, and Will, their neighbour, as they are forced to vacate their homes in the Walker Street estate to make way for a private development. Through a stark and poignant lens, Lucie’s documentary reminds us that humans thrive in communities – pubs, clinics, chemists, community houses and local shops all constitute the heartbeat of neighbourhoods – something that can’t be easily transplanted elsewhere. 

Side Exterior shot of Walker Street Housing Estate. Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon

Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon

Doorway of Walker Street Housing Estate. Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon

Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon

On an early autumn evening in a pub in Fitzroy, I caught up with Will, Lucie and the film’s cinematographer Celeste de Clario Davis to chat about Things Will Be Different. Lucie grew up in public housing in Collingwood and when she discovered the Walker Street estate was being demolished, she wanted to better understand the impacts of this action on the estate's residents. Lucie met Celeste, one of the tenants living at Walker Street at the time, through Melbourne's Save Public Housing Collective and together they were put in touch with the director of RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research Libby Porter. According to Celeste, “we went to this meeting, and they [suggested we] should make a film.” Lucie and Celeste began filming Will’s life as the events unfolded.  

Will is funny, sociable and fiercely intelligent – brimming with facts and dates and with an infectious interest in history. Early in our discussion he summarises the issue succinctly. He explains to me that the ongoing privatisation of public land by the government is to ensure “[the government] don't [have] $50 billion of assets there that they get no return on, because it doesn't make any sense.” A simple explanation for a complex problem affecting countless people. The recent privatisation of public housing contrasts with "the golden era of public housing," roughly from between 1945 (when the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement began) until 1975. During this era, from 1958 and 1962, the Walker Street estate was built to provide low-income housing for Melbournians in the tranquil solitude of Northcote overlooking the Merri Creek. Early in the film we watch grainy black and white archival footage of the construction of the estates – men on ladders leaning on prefabricated walls assemble the housing once considered a necessity rather than a burden.

In the wider discourse about public housing, what tends to be overlooked is the strength of community that exists in estates like Walker Street. Najat and Will, who worked together trying to save their homes from demolition, exemplify this bond which is felt throughout the film. The relocation process proves more complex for Najat, given her growing family’s needs and her desire for a larger living space. Balancing space and location becomes a dilemma she must confront as time grows short. Throughout this ordeal, Will is by her side, offering advice during house inspections and helping her with the move, further underscoring their solidarity.

Will explains to me that living in Sydney’s inner-city, where he lived prior to Melbourne, made him realise his friends “couldn't be where they were, and this was the community they had. People were making a community in the pubs, cafes, parks, essentially the city”. Without a sense of community humans become isolated. Will emphasises that “some people manage to create some sense of community online – but it's bullshit right... because the brain doesn't understand online, brains understand physical spaces”.

Will Gwynne at the Walker Street Housing Estate - courtesy Lucie McMahon
Will Gwynne at the Walker Street Housing Estate. Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon.

This gradual shift towards mixed housing (where public and private coexist) is part of a broader decline that Will explains to me. Every housing estate has a residents group and each of them include a meeting room. But later, Will says, “they all got folded into one group called the Victorian Public Tenants Association.” This amalgamation occurred in 2000 under the Steve Bracks government and the head office was located exactly where the Walker Street estate used to be. However, rather than the residents groups “being self-organising and self-funding the government pa[id] the wages [of members]”. Will explains that the VPTA supported the Public Housing Renewal Program because their directors are paid by the government leaving tenants with a great deal less autonomy to challenge decisions. 

Will is an avid collector. He is often found amidst his collection of rocks and traffic signs in his backyard. In a touching scene, the removalists arrive to relocate Will’s possessions. As the camera focuses on a sign reading “Low Clearance 3.3m” we hear Will directing a man with a trolley to remove the sign from his backyard. I am curious about Will’s affinity for collecting. As a devoted film buff, I am conscious that collecting is also an integral part of film culture. Will explains that he has “become increasingly [interested in] gathering. It’s everything, suddenly everything seems to have meaning”. Pebbles are a way for him to collect items without spending exorbitant amounts of money “and they don't fucking hurt anyone, no one else wants them, I've noticed… they're everywhere”.

Items collected by Will Gwynne. Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon
Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon
Will Gwynne and Side Exterior shot of Walker Street Housing Estate. Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon

Photo courtesy Lucie McMahon

Having recently returned from a trip to the Chennai International Documentary and Short Film Festival in India, where he screened the film and participated in a Q&A, Will was quick to comment on the nature of community that he witnessed there. In relation to some of the cities he visited he said, “most people do not understand the structures that reorganise their lives. Their lives do get reorganised. Everywhere [I] went in India you could see that.” This restructuring is not dissimilar to the Victorian government’s plans to relocate and redevelop the Walker Street estates. Due to the prospect of low-income tenants mixing with more affluent tenants, the new building plans seek to segregate the different stratum, possibly creating division within the community instead of solidarity. 

The need for more public housing appears to be low on the government’s agenda, as 75% of Victoria’s public housing stock is currently being sold to private developers. However, as Will and Najat – two people from different cultural and religious backgrounds – demonstrate in the documentary, a sense of community helps people cope under difficult circumstances. Through their fellowship in the face of adversity, Will and Najat show us that public housing cultivates a vibrant society where people feel like they are part of a larger family.

– Digby Houghton

Watch Things Will Be Different at ACMI

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